Monday, April 05, 2010

Sexual Harassment Policies (Yale v. Harvard)

My brother, in what I assume is a blatant attempt to be mentioned in this blog (Hi Steve!!!), sent me a link to the following article about a new rule (or, as the article describes it, "A Sad Day") at Yale, banning professors from having sex with undergraduates in all circumstances (not just students that, say, are in their classes).  More details at for example the Yale Alumni Magazine.    

I was all ready to start looking down my nose at the competition for being slow to adopt what are in my mind obvious rules to have, but decided to check Harvard's policy first.  (Always a good idea.)  Harvard's policy, arguably, isn't even as strong as Yale's old policy.  (Harry Lewis will, I imagine, correct me if I am mistaken in my interpretations or usage of documents.)  The relevant information seems to be here.  The policy description includes the following, under the heading UNPROFESSIONAL CONDUCT IN RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS OF DIFFERENT UNIVERSITY STATUS:

"Officers and other members of the teaching staff should be aware that any romantic involvement with their students makes them liable for formal action against them."

This seems to suggest that faculty can't have "romantic involvement" with their students, but some old letter to the Crimson suggests that the wording is much weaker than that (the article is here, the letter is here).  Strictly speaking (according to the letter), the wording seems to suggest that faculty members involved with students face the risk of a the student filing a sexual harassment/unprofessional conduct complaint;  but if the relationship is brought to light by a third party, there's no (apparent) cause for disciplinary action.  IANAL, but this seems like a possible interpretation;  I'm not sure what the current interpretation is here at Harvard.  

Indeed, later on the policy states:

"Amorous relationships between members of the Faculty and students that occur outside the instructional context can also lead to difficulties."

The rest of the paragraph suggests potential problems if Faculty engage in "romantic involvement" with students who they are not directly teaching, but seems to make clear (by my reading) it's not forbidden in any sense.

I've certainly heard arguments in the past that such rules shouldn't exist.  I can even see that there are potentially complicated lines -- should a professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences not be allowed to date a Harvard Law student?  (Extra credit:  why or why not?)  But given the potential for abuse (both intentional and unintentional) of the power relationship, I'm unapologetically on the "no faculty - undergraduate romance" side.  Or, as it says in the Yale Alumni Magazine:

'An imbalance of power forms the rationale for treating Yale College students differently from their older counterparts. Undergrads, the revised handbook says, “are particularly vulnerable to the unequal institutional power inherent in the teacher-student relationship and the potential for coercion, because of their age and relative lack of maturity.” '

Duh.  Good for Yale.


David Hall said...

Thanks for posting...Nothing fast seems to happen in academia. I guess in this case its better late then never!

Anonymous said...

There goes one of the best perks of being a professor. You work your ass off as an undergrad and a grad student, sacrificing the ritualistic "sowing of wild oats" enjoyed by many of your peers. As a result of this work ethic, you reach the top of your field. Accomplished and celibate, you look towards your time as a Yale professor. This will be your chance to make up for everything you have missed. Naieve undergrads who see you as a brilliant and mysterious mentor; the same undergrads who looked at you from a distance and said "eeew, look at that dweeb" not long ago. Those very supple youngsters are now within reach. But wait, this very simple reward you have been striving for all your life has just been taken away from you. Thanks for nothing yale. Geeks can never catch a break...

Moira said...

What about an undergraduate of a non-traditional age, for example, a student at the extension school? Or an undergraduate at the College who started at a traditional age, but took a long leave for a number of years before coming back to finish the degree. Does it matter if the undergraduate is older than the professor s/he is dating? Does it matter if the undergraduate was already dating the professor before s/he enrolled in the school?

Gilbert said...

I agree with Moira. The last quote you had from the revised Yale handbook conflates age, power-dynamics and position in the university. At many universities, staff are at liberty to take classes. A 40 year old staff member may be looking to date faculty for obvious reasons. Should they be prevented because of some classification as an undergraduate? Perhaps they should be prevented within their own department to prevent drama. Getting out of the hypotheticals, one of my undergraduate math professors is happily married to a former grad student. Of course, she was not allowed to take classes from him or anything else along those lines as a result. I also know of a specific case where a TA had to decline from grading any of his girlfriends assignments. Obviously prohibiting relationships between any grad students would be silly.

My suggestion: Directly punish conflicts of interest. There should be a rule prohibiting person A from teaching, grading, or otherwise assessing person B for the purposes of academic certification or employment if A and B are in a relationship or have been within the past 5 years. This should apply uniformly across age groups and positions. For example, if faculty A and faculty B date, then neither should be able to weigh in positively or negatively on the other's tenure case.

Harry Lewis said...

Alas, we need rules, but sometimes social problems can't be solved by rigid regulation. (In the following, I am going to assume that the student is female and the professor is male, but all four cases have arisen in practice.)

On the one hand, there are downsides to absolutist regulation. Women students already don't have equal access to male faculty, because any sensible man wouldn't feel comfortable spending too much time alone with a female student -- too much risk of an accusation. And regulatory language that is too expansive prohibits unproblematic consensual relationships such as those Moira notes. (I write about these issues in Excellence Without a Soul, pp. 84ff, for example.) It is hard to get the language right. Very hard. What if Alice is in a happy consensual relationship with Professor Bob, and Carol gets jealous and complains? Does Bob get stripped of tenure?

By the way, I am not sure how to parse Yale's "liable" language. It feels like the sort of adjective you'd use for a law you don't intend to enforce unless you decide you want to because something else has gone wrong (which is the way statutory rape laws now work in practice, when applied to teenage couples).

On the other hand, if we paid attention to the personal character of the professors we hire, there would be less need to try to regulate their behavior. I'd much rather see a general elevation of the ethical and moral tone of the institution than more rules. But it's not simple. Would we have any idea if a star faculty candidate had been divorced from several wives who were a great deal younger than he? If we did know, would we hesitate to hire him based on that? If we thought that such matters were none of our business when we hired him, would we really think he is going to keep his hands in his pockets because of our rules? I am not suggesting that I have an answer here. It is awfully hard, given the dark history of universities prosecuting homosexuality, to think that we should take candidates' private sex lives into account when we decide whether to hire them.

Final thought, and advice for any students listening. Regulation or no, these are horrible situations, far better avoided than repaired. The rules can't ever put things back the way they were before, so students need to look in the mirror and seek advice early rather than hoping that the system will fix things later on if a relationship goes off the rails.

Anyway, I must go. I now have to read the Conflicts of Interest proposal to be discussed in our faculty meeting today, which seems to be aimed at regulating other things which are obviously unethical but which some of our faculty have done anyway.

Anonymous said...

I find the ban overly sweeping and paternalistic. For the record, I have never dated a student and find such relationships generally unappropriate, but at some point we need to treat adults like adults.

If an adult friend were to date someone 20 years older, I would be worried for him/her, but certainly would never pressume to tell either party that their relationship is forbidden by some legal or employment rule.

Panos Ipeirotis said...

" but at some point we need to treat adults like adults. "


There is a thing in our society that we call "presumption of innocence". Condemning someone just because the relationship may lead to abuse is not just paternalistic, but dictatorial.

Definitely, ANY abuse of power should be strictly punished.

But forbidding relationships, just in case one of the parties abuse the power structure of the relationship, is the equivalent of prohibiting marriage between a wealthy person and and a poor one. There is the potential of the rich abusing their wealth, as well.

Maybe forbidding martial arts because they can lead to violence?

Maybe forbid security classes in CS departments because the students will learn how to hack into vulnerable systems?

With great power comes great responsibility. The solution is not to prevent empowerment.

Anonymous said...

As a second or third year student my wife's best friend began a relationship with the faculty advisor to a campus organization. They got married when she was 21 and he was 42.

They did eventually split up but only after two kids and being married for around 20 years. She ended up not finishing her degree but they ran several successful businesses together. She was nearly disowned by her family (he was Jewish and
divorced when they met with two children from his previous marriage and they were strict Catholics) but there was a rapproachment shortly before they had their first kid.

I never particularly liked the guy and don't think it was good for her but she went into this with her eyes open. She knew exactly what her family reaction would be. His advisory role for the student organization had nothing whatever to do with her academic success or failure. He had no power in any meaningful sense, though he did have knowledge and life experiences that she found attractive.

While I thought that this was very ill-advised I still am not sure about legislating against such relationships.

Brother Steve said...

I am happy to see this post generate above average comment activity.

I sent it along as I am still most concerned about the troubled student that provided this rating of you in 2005:

Luca said...

From what I remember of our sexual harassment training, UC Berkeley forbids relationship where one party is in a management, advising, or teaching role over the other, or in general has some authority and/or conflict of interest. This includes professors and all students who are taking, or are likely to take in the future, his/her classes.

Nothing in the rules forbids, however, a relationship between, say, a biology professor and a history major (who has no intention of ever taking biology classes).

This seems to me a common-sense approach, quite uncharacteristically so for the Berkeley administration, I should add.

Anonymous said...

Leaving aside (reasonable) moral qualms, what legal right does an employer have to outright ban these sorts of relationships? Seems blatantly illegal to me.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it seems it's not illegal:

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine went back to school as a 40 year old divorcee. Eventually, she met a professor in another department and got married about the same time she finished her degree.

Yale considers her too immature to be able to date such a person.

Sue said...

i'm so glad you wrote about this. harvard really is ridiculous when it comes to their sexual harassment policy. their lack of prevention is unacceptable.